House Hunting: Prime Unreal Estate
By Catriona McPhersonOctober 24, 2018
From the Queen of Crime Fiction to the Kiwi Killer, Catriona McPherson takes us on a tour of her top five houses found in crime fiction!
I do love a book with a house in it. When I write one, I draw a floor plan with cupboards, light switches and door hinges marked. When I read one, well, I draw a floor plan with cupboards, light switches . . . and I’m not alone. A quick search online yields the Waltons’ house, the Friends’ apartments and The Overlook Hotel, all with ready-to-build blueprints.
To celebrate the publication of Go To My Grave, my homage to the country house murder mystery, I’ve put together my top-five fictional houses in books. By the way, I’d recommend all the books on the list as good reads. The plots and characters are as fine as the glorious settings.
It took some whittling. Honourable mention goes to Gatsby’s mansion on Long Island, Isabel Dalhousie’s Edinburgh villa and Willy and Alvirah Meehan’s Central Park South apartment. If anyone offered me that mansion, villa or apartment, I wouldn’t flounce off insulted.
But, after lengthy consideration, here are my absolute carve-it-in-stone, laminate-it-for traveling top five.
First up is 25 and 26 Pleasaunce Court Mansions, in Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys. Marsh is one of my favorite Golden Age authors and this is my favorite of her novels: for the feckless but beguiling Lamprey family; the deliciously gruesome murder of hateful Uncle Gabriel; the sharp eye of Robin Grey, who tells the tale; the sulfurous whiff of sorcery; and—most of all—for the flat. Pleasaunce Court Mansions sits on the corner of a short street, between Cadogan Square and Lennox Gardens, in Knightsbridge, and, on the top floor, 25 and 26 have been thrown together on a shoestring to accommodate the eight members of the Lamprey family. The guest room, where Robin sleeps, is but a curtained-off bit of the passageway and Nanny holds court in an ex-kitchen, using the electric stove as a bureau. It’s this cheerful making-do that appeals so much about the Lampreys’ digs – that and the contrast with the OTT Gothic home of the late Gabriel and his widow, the bone-chillingly creepy Aunt Vi. It’s at their house where the darkest and most genuinely disturbing scene in all Marsh’s novels takes place. After it, we’re mightily relieved to go scuttling back, with Robin, to Pleasaunce Court Mansions and the warmth of the Lamprey clan.
There’s another posh but poor family in my second choice: the Mortmains of Godsend, in Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle. I adore this book. It’s one of the five novels that made me a writer (but that’s another blog) and the crumbling-to-the-brink-of-ruin Godsend Castle is a big part of the attraction. It’s a proper castle, mind you, not just a large house with small windows. It’s on an island surrounded by a moat and reached via a drawbridge, for a start. There’s even a rampart walk connecting various turrets and spiral staircases. For the most part, though, the family lives in a kind of Tudor lean-to built against a surviving castle wall, with no attempt to match it in style. The house is spectacularly inconvenient and getting scruffier with every bit of furniture the Mortmains are forced to sell. But the moon is reflected in the moat during midnight swims and there’s a gargoyle on the kitchen wall. I’d drop a bathroom for a gargoyle. Wouldn’t you?
Still, a snug villa by the sea and enough money to gussie it up would do in a pinch. Hillside, in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, is pure property porn from long before property porn was everyone’s—okay, my—guilty pleasure. Giles and Gwenda come to England from Australia, land in Plymouth on the south coast (very much Dame Agatha’s stamping ground) and start house-hunting. Hillside seems perfect, with big, light-drenched rooms, a bounteous garden, even a mahogany surround to the enormous bath. And not too expensive either. Of course, there’s the small matter of Gwenda suddenly seeing, as she descends the stairs, a vision of a strangled woman on the marble tiles of the entrance hall and a man, with grey monkey-paws for hands, standing over the corpse, gloating . . . but every house purchase has some compromise.
When Giles goes off on business leaving Gwenda alone, things get even weirder. Sick of wishing there was a door between drawing room and dining room, Gwenda asks her builder to put one in. He doesn’t need to. There’s one already there, under the wallpaper. And speaking of wallpaper . . . Gwenda takes a notion for poppies and cornflowers in her bedroom. While the decorator prepares, he jimmies open a jammed-shut cupboard and guess what’s on the wall in there. Yep. Now that Christie’s plots have been so often and so shamelessly copied, it’s easy to forget what a trailblazer she was. But for anyone who doesn’t know the secret of Hillside, Sleeping Murder is a treat in store.
And while we’re on young brides in creepy houses, I put it to you that no hit parade would be complete without Manderley, from Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece, Rebecca. If I Capture The Castle was Smith’s love letter to Suffolk, then Rebecca is an epic love poem in five volumes to Cornwall. Du Maurier’s affection for Manderley is on every page. It’s not a comfortable house: the formality is overwhelming to the second Mrs. de Winter; the servants are at best clueless and at worst Mrs. Danvers—a peerless creation, but who’d want to live with her? And to add insult upon insult, the first (dead) Mrs. de Winter has still got the best bedroom. Come on! Despite all that, in the book, in Selznick’s film, and in real life (in the form of Caerhays Castle on the Roseland peninsula) Manderley casts a spell that would make anyone happy to go there again.
There’s another jumble of reality, book, film and—this time—telly too in my last choice, my all-time number-one tip-top favorite fictional home. Can you guess? Come with me through the streets of London, turn north from Marylebone Road, ascend seventeen steps to the first (US = second) floor and enter 221b Baker Street. Even if Sherlock and Dr. Watson are out, you know Mrs. Hudson will make you a cup of tea. Now, my picture of 221b is much more detailed than anything Arthur Conan Doyle ever described. He told us the sitting room faced the front with Holmes’s bedroom behind and Watson’s upstairs again. The illustrations in The Strand Magazine added gas lamps, fringed velvet, and Turkish carpets. But it’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman I want to move in with as roommate number three. No time travel necessary. That flat is the perfect mixture of comfort (in the chairs), style (in the wallpaper) and diversion (in the marvelous muddle of random stuff). Life would never be boring, you wouldn’t fret if you knocked over a cup of coffee, and there’s always a taxi coming down the street if you need one. Add a smidgen of outdoor space—a roof terrace, a balcony, a sooty little back garden where I could string up a washing line—and I’d be happy there on Baker Street for the rest of my days.
And that’s my top five. Tell me if you agree. Better still, tell me what I missed—I’d be thrilled to hear about new books with great houses. I haven’t drawn a floorplan for a while…
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